New Internet addresses for general use could start appearing in the summer of 2008 under a timeline the Internet's key oversight agency announced Thursday.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers invited public comment on procedures for creating new names, the first expansion for general use since 2000. Names added since then have been limited to specific regions or industries.
"This is all about choice," ICANN Chief Executive Paul Twomey said in a statement. "We want the diversity of the world's people, geography and business to be able to be represented in the domain name system."
Domain names are key for helping computers find Web sites and route e-mail. There are currently about 250 domain name suffixes, most of them for specific countries such as ".fr" for France. General-use names include ".com" and ".net."
In 2000, two years after its designation by the U.S. government as the authority for overseeing Internet naming policies, ICANN approved seven new names, but only ".info" and ".biz" were truly for general use.
ICANN solicited additional applications in 2004 and has approved six regional or industry-specific names, such as ".travel" and ".asia," while rejecting ".xxx" for the adult entertainment industry.
Some ICANN critics have complained that the agency has been slow to approve new names and that the procedures have sometimes been arbitrary. Businesses and trademark owners, meanwhile, worry that more names will lead to more cybersquatting, the practice of grabbing names before companies can in hopes of selling them at a premium.
ICANN did not specify how individuals and groups would be able to seek new names, but the group indicated that the procedures would be streamlined to permit "a much wider variety of them to be added in a timely, predictable and efficient manner."
An ICANN committee, the Generic Names Supporting Organization, still is reviewing the procedures. Once it sends a recommendation to the ICANN board, procedures could be adopted by year's end and applications for new names could be accepted early next year.
Twomey said new names could be reviewed and added into the system in the June-August 2008 timeframe.
The new addresses are likely to be in English.
ICANN could wrap up the technical work on non-Latin scripts by year's end, but it still must resolve policy questions such as who should decide what countries get what suffixes and how to make sure a domain in one language isn't inadvertently offensive in another.